The Marriage Antidote to Domestic Violence?
I had trouble keeping up this past week. We saw a barrage of commentary in response to a troubling Op-Ed published in the Washington Post on Wednesday. In an apparent homage to Fathers’ Day, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson offered their opinions under the title: “One Way to End Violence Against Women? Married Dads.” The critical response and push back to the article have been almost instantaneous. That’s the good news.
I had trouble keeping up this past week. We saw a barrage of commentary in response to a troubling Op-Ed published in the Washington Post on Wednesday. In an apparent homage to Father's Day, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson offered their opinions under the title: “One Way to End Violence Against Women? Married Dads.”
The critical response and push back to the article have been almost instantaneous. That’s the good news.
On the one hand, the authors, in response to the Santa Barbara murders, acknowledged the needed attention to the fact that “millions of girls and women have been abused, assaulted, or raped by men, and even more fear that they will be subject to such an attack." So far, so good.
But then we were treated to the slicing and dicing of research and statistics to conclude that “Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers...” In a profoundly simplistic and unabashed polemic the authors concluded that marriage (assumed to be heterosexual) is the answer to domestic violence.
They drew erroneous conclusions from the two primary pieces of research that they cite. First of all, the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect presents data on child abuse and not domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV). Second, the data from the Dept. of Justice study “Intimate Partner Violence Against Women 1993-2010” reports the highest rate of IPV against single women with children. We are not told whether the intimate partner violence these women report occurred before they became single (i.e. were married to an abuser) or while they were single. What appears to be missing in the authors’ analysis is the relative “safety” of divorced women with children, i.e. women who have left an abuser to whom they were married and are now safe from abuse. Where are these numbers?
So let’s get to a few facts: the rate of (heterosexual) marriage has been dropping in recent years and the rate of cohabiting couples has been rising.
The rate of intimate partner violence (which includes married and unmarried couples) has dropped at least 50% since the mid 1990s.
When we put these two snapshots of data together, it would appear that in fact the absence of (heterosexual) marriage has contributed to a drop in domestic violence. But I am not making that argument because it would be equally simplistic and unhelpful.
I would be the first to affirm that women and children living in healthy, nonabusive relationships (married or otherwise) enjoy the benefits of safety and are least likely to be abused. That is the family I grew up in and the family I now live in.
Through my work with FaithTrust Institute over the past four decades, however, I have witnessed the struggles of many married women seeking to escape abusive relationships and have counseled numerous clergy members working to offer them spiritual support. The reality is that marriage itself does not stop or transform the controlling, abusive behavior of men who do inflict intimate partner violence. Even Wilcox and Wilson acknowledge, “Marriage is no panacea when it comes to male violence.”
But in this article, Wilcox and Wilson are making a convoluted argument that marriage is the antidote to domestic violence; this is irresponsible and once again places responsibility on women for men’s bad behaviors.
And to add insult to injury, Wilcox, who is director of the National Marriage Project, addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (the day after his op-ed appeared) on the topic of marriage. Although Wilcox may offer justification that reinforces positions the bishops hold, his analysis will not provide what is actually needed—a solid understanding of intimate partner violence and progress toward real solutions for the problem.
Faith communities need and deserve better commentary than this.